Photo: Ramesh Pathania/Mint
Photo: Ramesh Pathania/Mint

Opinion | We may finally have a chance to transform the country

Health paranoia is the most useful paranoia, for it can eclipse wasteful Indian paranoias about identity

Do you believe there are reformers? People who can make other people quit what they want to do and instead do what is not so enjoyable, natural or profitable to them? Preachers who want to say, “why can’t you be like me?", but say something nicer to achieve the same end? Can a very popular person, like a film star or political leader, be the perfect reformer?

A star is the creation of a society; almost an employee. How then can a star change society? A star may say noble things now and then, and everyone likes that, but if he tries too hard to change people, they might change their star. People even change gods if they get too demanding. That is why no god anywhere in the world has tried to take away sugar from people. And a person who is not a star is an ineffective reformer.

That a society changes because of reformers is a spurious history written by reformers. Societies transform when people have no other choice but to transform; like how men become better men when they cannot get away with the things their fathers did.

A pandemic has all the qualities of a transformational event. And Prime Minister Narendra Modi is in a unique position to use it to change many aspects of the nation that are otherwise hard to change.

The ongoing Covid-19 pandemic has transmitted the fear of death in India without the misery of too many deaths, or the bitterness of caste and religious tensions. India today is filled with a rare form of paranoia that has no human foes. Last Thursday, Modi highlighted this aspect of the crisis while asking Indians to perform a national sacrifice by staying at home on Sunday, and to practise a mechanical action in unison for five minutes—clap and clang bells. This was to train Indians to do more significant things in the future, as a community.

Modi keeps asking us to reform ourselves and do noble things for the nation. But under normal circumstances, nothing much happens. The reality of a pandemic, though, gives his government an unprecedented opportunity to do revolutionary things.

For instance, the government should give itself a reasonable deadline after which it should make it illegal for a crush of humanity to be squeezed into small spaces, like public buses and trains. Actually, it is officially illegal in India for “large animals" to be transported the way human Indians often are.

The contagious nature of Covid-19, and the fact that everyone will be affected by the misfortune of a few, gives India a chance to reform itself without the frivolity of morality, or shallow concern for the poor. Instead, what the country has been presented with is the conviction of self-interest.

The pandemic also gives the country a chance to get draconian about hygiene and public order. The Prime Minister’s cleanliness drive, Swachh Bharat, his best policy in my view, has remained a fringe movement that never achieved the emotional force of less useful Indian obsessions, like religious and caste identities. If Modi musters all his storytelling talent, he could use corona to make cleanliness the central priority of India for many months to come, even years. And, as public obsession is a zero-sum game, where one story is at the expense of other stories, a central focus on hygiene, health and public aesthetics can deplete the power of bleak activists who thrive on cultural paranoia and the tiring civil wars of identity.

Health paranoia is probably the most intelligent form of paranoia, and it can diminish the potency of wasteful paranoias that take over our public lives.

On Thursday, a man who was riding a bike in Mumbai sneezed and some paranoid pedestrians reportedly beat him up. This is extraordinary because usually Indians don’t expect anything in the way of hygiene from other Indians on a road. An Indian enjoys foolishly high levels of civil freedoms and individual liberties in public spaces, perhaps on par with animals in a protected sanctuary. The typical citizen seems trained to believe that what is good for others is never good for him. In large parts of India, spitting, dumping garbage, urinating and defecating wherever people want are a way of being human. It is time to end this freedom in a forceful way.

This will also be politically useful for the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party, as agitations tend to become expensive in a more orderly society.

Most Indians, including politicians and bureaucrats, harbour the notion that the comfort of public utilities is a form of luxury, hence something that most Indians do not expect, or even feel they deserve. But we have always demonstrated that the more swanky a public space, the more citizens respect its rules of order and the better they work at keeping it clean. High aesthetics in a given space inform Indians that there has been a departure from civic incompetence here, that someone is doing his job well, and if they fool around, they will efficiently be fined.

India’s dull notions about the nobility of spatial poverty are not limited to politicians. Bleak humanitarians who lament that Mumbai’s airport is luxurious while its train stations are plain, display the same misunderstanding. The fact is that the luxury of Indian airports, while not at the expense of train stations, serve as aspirational models for what other public spaces can become.

Modi should use the hysteria around Covid-19 to first get our public spaces in good shape, and then to tame some harmful Indian civic freedoms.

Manu Joseph is a journalist, and a novelist, most recently of ‘Miss Laila, Armed And Dangerous’

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